It may seem odd to hear a U.S. Marines Veteran who never played football under Phil Fulmer say he learned something about the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fi” from the old Tennessee coach.
Afterall, Semper Fi means “always faithful” but it also means “always loyal“.
I have learned a valuable lesson from this past decade from the firing of Phillip Fulmer as any Tennessee Volunteers fan probably has.
Before I go on, I’ll also be the first to say I am fully aware the following is an example of outcome bias: the tendency to judge a decision based on the outcome, rather than the quality of the decision at the time it was made. Outcome bias is a significant error observed often in investment management, but it applies to all human endeavors.
Back in 2008, Dusty Floyd explained it well:
150 career wins, a winning percentage of almost 75 percent, a national title, and five trips to the SEC championship in 17 years. How would a coach with this kind of résumé get fired?
Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer has done a great job at the University of Tennessee but has struggled in the past few years. In the past four seasons, Tennessee’s record has been 27-20. That’s way below par for a school with as much tradition as Tennessee has.
I have to admit, I too was excited when the University of Tennessee announced the hiring of Lane Kiffin. At the time, it seemed the fresh eyes and energy of a younger coach with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove was an exciting new direction for the Vols. I was especially excited to hear Lane Kiffin’s father, the famous Monte Kiffin of Tampa Bay Bucs, was going to join him along with an excellent recruiter Ed Orgeron. It seemed Tennessee had the potential to become an NFL looking powerhouse. And, it did.
At the same time, we were renovating Neyland Stadium and I was grateful to be able to invest in the prestigious new West Club. The donation was large enough to get a plaque on the front of Neyland Stadium behind the General Neyland statue, who was the only coach to win more games than Fulmer as a UT football coach.
On the wall behind the statue are the names of the proud donors, myself included.
We enjoyed the games at the West Club and most of the time stayed on our boat with the Vol Navy for the long weekend.
After a period of walking the walk of shame, losing to teams Tennessee should beat, we eventually bought a second home in Tampa, Florida and spent the winter and football season there. Now, we spend most of our time there and this summer was our first summer in Florida.
I’m not going to rehash what happened next and the roller coaster of the past decade. It’s a national story at this point. One of the most storied football programs in the county has had some highs, but many lows. Fortunately, with a few well-timed picks, we’ve got to be present for the highs such as the huge win over Virginia Tech at The Battle of Bristol, which holds the record for NCAA football’s largest single-game attendance at an astonishing 156,990. It was held at the Bristol Motor Speedway and we enjoyed it very much.
A football coach is measured by quarters, games, and seasons. If he doesn’t have the assistant coaches and players he wants, he has to make due and wait until next season. So, it could take a few years to get the adjustments right.
Phil Fulmer had lost David Cutcliffe, the outstanding UT offensive coordinator, who became the head coach of Duke, where he still is today. When Cutcliffe left, the offense struggled, and UT had it’s second losing season since 2005. So, one of the winningest coaches in college football history agreed to resign in a very emotional press conference.
I didn’t like the way that press conference felt, seeing the extremely passionate Phil Fulmer emotional on a national podium. It felt like betrayal and disloyalty then. It felt like a very proud football program had cut out one of its own, who played football at UT, in favor of a younger more aggressive coach with something to prove. At the time, Fulmer seemed to be still enjoying the fame of the 1998 National Championship and many SEC East wins.
Then came the young Lane Kiffin. We had hope of his fresh energy, but we know how that turned out. His true dream job opened up the very next season, and he bolted for the University of Southern California. Who could blame him? He had coached at USC and wouldn’t have to compete in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference and the likes of Nick Saban’s Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, LSU, and the list goes on.
Nevertheless, it was a harsh lesson of loyalty. Kiffin wasn’t loyal, but Fulmer was.
We’ve since had to endure the roller coaster of Dooley, Butch Jones, and now the new Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt certainly has a better history than the former, so we’ve got to give him a chance to get it right. It isn’t going to happen overnight. He may have a rocky start on Rocky Top, but at this point, we’ve got to apply some semper fi. We now have Fulmer back at UT as the Athletic Director and he picked Pruitt, so let’s give him what he needs to succeed.
I’m going to the Tennessee vs. Georgia game today. We won’t be in our old West Club seats, but we’ll be front and center. Sure, we know the probable outcome in advance, but we’re here in Knoxville to cheer them on, win or lose.
The same applies to investment management.
If I applied the same mindset to any of my most profitable trading systems over the past two decades, we would have missed out and never achieved their long term asymmetric risk/reward profile. I operate about three dozen unique systems and not a single one of them wins all the time or always achieves our desired outcome. I have scientifically backtested thousands of systems of entry, exit, and position sizing, and risk management and even with perfect hindsight, we are unable to create perfect systems that perform well over every single market regime and condition. Even when I add my own skill, intuition, and experience I am unable to make it perfect.
What I’ve learned as an investment manager all these years is we have to make it okay to lose, or we would never cut our losses short and prevent them from growing into large losses. We have to be willing to experience imperfect periods of performance because we simply can’t achieve the asymmetric risk/reward profile we want to create without accepting the periods it doesn’t look as we want.
Today, I”m reminded of what I’ve learned about semper fi from Phillip Fulmer as I’m going to attend my first Tennessee football game since he became the UT AD.
There are many similar parallels between investment management and football coaching. There is a time for offense and a time for defense. Both require tremendous commitment, discipline, and execution to operate successfully long term. Some are much better at it than others and there is a significant divergence between the skill of the best and the mediocre.
What did I learn from Phil Fulmer?
Semper Fidelis: Always be faithful and loyal.
Stick to the system and stick with good people with passion.
In hindsight and a large dose of outcome bias, I’m pretty sure Phil Fulmer would have achieved more the past decade.
Mike Shell is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Shell Capital Management, LLC, and the portfolio manager of ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical.
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